Best digital camera to buy
UPDATE: this was written quite some time ago, things have changed a lot... Mobile phone cameras became a way better and completely replaced compact cameras. And what is much better in mobile cameras compared to DSLRs, they are always with you when you need them! Unlike the DSLR that is at home... Please keep this in mind while reading!
Probably the most frequent advice request I receive from friends is about the best digital camera to buy. Choosing a camera can justifiably be considered the starting point for people who wish to dive into the photography world. In this article I describe my view on the existing digital photo camera types, and recommend what I think is best for photography enthusiasts. While writing this I realized that another related article is needed explaining why I believe that the number of megapixels is irrelevant nowadays: What are megapixels? How many megapixels do I need?
Having said that there is no need to worry about the camera resolution, I will look at other, far more important aspects. But first, let me describe for whom I am writing this, what kind of readers I envision. I don’t expect you to be a professional photographer, because you would know what you need much better than I do in that case. But I also don’t target people who are not really interested in photography, who do not appreciate photo quality. If you are satisfied with the quality of cheap point-and-shoot cameras, I cannot really offer you any valuable advice, because I know close to nothing about those cameras, and they look all the same for me. I assume that your interest in photography is high enough to sacrifice the convenience of carrying a tiny camera in the pocket. Instead, you are ready to carry around a large and heavy load on your neck :-), which any decent digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is, compared to the small compact counterparts.
I distinguish three classes of digital cameras:
- Cameras on mobile devices, which I don’t actually consider photo cameras at all :-)
- Small point-and-shoot cameras (compacts), or the doubtful staff :-)
- DSLR cameras, or the real staff :-)
Cameras on mobile devices
DSLR, compact and mobile cameras. Compare the body and the lens sizes, if you can see the iPhone lens :-)
As I said, I don’t consider cameras on mobile devices (let’s call them mobile cameras for simplicity) to be photo cameras at all. This is not because the manufacturers are bad. This is because you cannot fit a microwave in a tiny mobile device, it is technically impossible (at least yet). Look at the size of the lens in your mobile camera. Then look at the size of a DSLR lens, and you will understand :-) Imagine how much more difficult it is to make a quality lens of such a tiny size! It is not so obvious, but the sensor is the same story. I believe that it is much easier to produce a quality large-size sensor than a tiny-size one.
"But wait, I have seen you using your iPhone camera!". That’s true, I do sometimes. But I consider it to be a very handy portable scanning device, rather than a photo camera. I use it to make notes, to save things I am too lazy to remember myself. Especially in combination with Evernote, it is very convenient, I really recommend! :-)
And now the greatest confession... Yes, I used the iPhone 4 camera as a photo camera once!!! That was a very shameful story. As it often happens (too often, in fact :-) ), my friend and colleague asked me to photograph his PhD defense. I took my Nikon D200 with an external flash and a couple of lenses, as usually. But it was too early in the morning for the academic world, and I forgot a memory card! Nobody around had a CF card at the moment... Imagine how I felt about it... I ended up taking photos with iPhone in very difficult lighting conditions... Even Photo Sense could not really help... ;-(
Thus, I believe, a mobile camera is far not the best digital camera to buy. If you are any serious about photography, forget about cameras on mobile devices! On the other hand, you most probably already have one (or several), thus what I actually recommend is to avoid using them for photography. :-)
Small point-and-shoot cameras (compacts)
Canon PowerShot S2 IS: a great compact camera, although not really that compact :-)
These are usually much better than mobile cameras. I had a Canon PowerShot S2 IS, one of the largest and best-quality compacts, when I started taking photography seriously somewhere in 2006. Initially I chose it mostly for a huge (for a compact) lens, incredible zoom, and a cool rotating display. This camera has nearly all the important settings you might need. You only have to spend a lot of time hunting for them deep inside menus, instead of pressing a couple of buttons blindly, as in a professional DSLR. It has an amazing zoom range, which you can achieve with a DSLR only by investing serious money into several lenses (and don’t forget you have to change those lenses every time you need on a DSLR!). In exchange, of course, the image quality was far from the cheapest DSLR. We still keep a couple of photos made at that time with Canon PowerShot S2 IS in our gallery (this and this, for example)!
There is a huge variety of compact cameras, from tiny very low-quality ones, which don’t differ much from the mobile cameras, to much larger ones approaching DSLR cameras’ quality and size. There even exist compacts with interchangeable lenses, which sounds very impressive (although I am not sure they are a good choice). However, in my opinion, cheap low-quality compacts are just too bad; the good ones are too close to the entry-level DSLR in all respects: quality, price, and even size. In The Netherlands, the top compacts sell for around 400-500 Euro, and that’s where the entry-level DSLR cameras start. Thus, I see no reason to choose expensive compacts instead of an entry-level DSLR, which most probably has a better quality. Especially regarding compacts with interchangeable lenses. Instead of investing in these lenses, isn’t it better to invest directly in the more universal DSLR lenses? With these, if you decide to upgrade to a higher-class camera body some day, you will still be able to use all the old lenses!
I think that’s enough for the compact cameras. To summarize, if a small size is more important for you than the image quality and the configuration convenience, a compact might be the best digital camera to buy for you. However, if you choose a high-end, expensive compact camera, than I would recommend to take another look: isn’t an entry-level DSLR a better choice for a similar price?..
If you still choose a compact camera, I have a hint for you. Choose one that uses the standard SD cards (used in many other electronic devices including mobiles) rather than some manufacturer’s proprietary cards. SD cards are usually cheaper and easy to buy even in the middle of nowhere, hence there is a smaller chance to miss a unique opportunity to make the best photo ever. The same problem with the standard AA batteries vs. proprietary ones. I know people whose entire vacation was spoiled because of a broken proprietary memory card whose replacement was not available around...
The best digital camera to buy: DSLR
Finally, DSLR cameras, or the real staff :-) For sure the best digital camera to buy! What distinguishes them from compacts? Mostly, the size :-) They are large. Thus, they have larger sensors and lenses (hence higher quality, I believe - see What are megapixels? How many megapixels do I need?). They also have enough surface space to put many useful controls at your fingertips. Literally :-). They feel better in the hand. They have more powerful built-in processors, thus they «think» much faster. Finally, unlike the other types, they have a mechanical rather than electrical shutter, which means that they can shoot faster.
Nikon D700: highly recommended, if the budget permits.
I will only speak about Nikon and Canon. There are of course other (probably very good) manufacturers, but for some reason, all the serious photographers I have heard of use either of these two brands (or both). I did not have time and budget to test multiple brands, so I just compared these two when buying my first DSLR. I honestly tried to perform a good research when comparing Nikon D80 to Canon 450D. However, I failed to find any serious reasons to pick a particular one, only a number of minor votes for Nikon D80. After all, to my shame, my choice was mostly based on the look and feel :-) Nikon D80 is larger, feels more robust and convenient in the hand, and the build quality seems better. I was also impressed by someone’s opinion that the entry-level Nikon lenses are better (and also more expensive) than their Canon counterparts.
I am not going to recommend Nikon over Canon or vice versa. Leaving the choice to you, I would only like to stress a very important point that you might overlook in the beginning. Don’t forget that by choosing a DSLR camera to buy, you devote yourself to this brand, because of your future lens collection. Lenses are more important than camera bodies themselves for the image quality. Thus, if you take photography seriously, you are likely to invest more into lenses than into cameras. Fortunately, unlike digital camera bodies, which become outdated rather quickly, lenses are a very long-time investment. Modern Nikon DSLR cameras (except for the cheapest ones) still work fine with the earliest dozens years old Nikon lenses! Thus, you will probably build your lens collection bit by bit over time. And once you have a number of expensive lenses, you certainly don’t want to switch to another camera brand, because you would need to change all your lenses!
OK, that’s about the brands. But every brand has a variety of DSLRs, which of them is the best camera to buy? DSLR cameras of all manufacturers are often classified as follows:
- entry-level (below approximately 1000 Euro)
- semi-professional (1000-2000, or maybe 3000 Euro)
- professional (above 2000, or maybe 3000 Euro)
It is sometimes difficult to classify a particular camera, especially with the recent flow of strange middle-class models. With Canon, I lost a track quite some time ago. For Nikon, I consider D50 to D90 as the entry-level, D300 as the semi-professional, D3 as the professional, and D700 as somewhere in between the last two, probably more on the professional side. Then all those D5000 and D7000 appeared, and I am lost again... I have a feeling that even the manufacturers themselves are quite confused about the classification :-)
Nikon D700 monochrome status display and controls: quick access to all the useful settings.
Entry-level cameras are, obviously, the cheapest and the lowest quality. They have some very useful controls buried deep in menus instead of providing quick access buttons on the body surface (just a bit better than the high-end compacts in this respect :-) ). Instead of useful controls such as the ISO setting, they use valuable surface space for those terrible dials with useless shooting modes ("night", "portrait", "macro", "auto", whatever... OK, I see I am becoming a bit emotional and look only from the point of view of a rather advanced photographer, there might be people who like this all if Nikon does it...) Sometimes entry-level DSLR cameras only partially support old lenses (cannot evaluate exposure or autofocus with these lenses, for example). Finally, they are too small for my taste (not very convenient to grab), and the build quality is not so impressive.
Semi-professional cameras remove all the clutter from the body, and make all the really useful controls easily and quickly accessible. Once your skills have sufficiently grown, you will be much more efficient with a semi-professional than an entry-level camera. You will configure whatever you need instantly. Semi-professional cameras (and also some more expensive entry-level ones) often have a special small monochrome screen at the top near the shutter button, which shows all the shooting settings - very convenient (unlike the main color screen, this settings screen is easily readable at bright sunlight)! They also might show more useful information in the viewfinder. They have a great build quality, with very solid magnesium alloy bodies, weather proofing etc. They feel like something significant in your hand :-).
Finally, the professional cameras. They don’t differ that much from the semi-professional models, I think. Take Nikon D700 and D3, for example. Both full-frame, most probably even the same sensor. Same materials. Like most professional cameras, D3 has a build-in grip, which is of course more robust than an attached one (if you use it). Fits two memory cards instead of one. But I think the major difference is the speed. Unless you are a professional sports photographer, you don’t care about that.
To summarize, which exactly DSLR model to buy? I cannot decide for you, as I don’t know your intentions and the available budget. The general rule, up to the semi-professional class, is simple: choose the most expensive model you can (and wish) to afford. The price is well justified. On the other hand, unless you are a professional (again, what are you doing here than? :-) ), I don’t recommend the professional models with an embedded grip, they are most probably an overkill for you. I never had a professional model myself, and of course I don’t want you to be cooler than myself :-)
The best digital camera to buy, in my view, is the cheapest full-frame model (Nikon D700 which I have myself, or Canon EOS 5D Mark II). If you can afford it, of course. The second best is Nikon D300 and the corresponding Canon model, and so on. When choosing the model, keep in mind that your needs might grow very quickly, if you are planning to take photography seriously. Today you are not familiar with the basic camera settings, and you don’t care about the convenient separate screen with the shooting settings (which is visible at sunlight!) In a few month, you might regret it. Now you don’t mind to use the auto ISO, and tomorrow you will want a quick access to the manual setting to control the noise level... Thus, unless you know that you have no interest in improving your photography skills, pick the best camera you can afford!
And the most important: don’t forget that if you go for DSLR, the most important question is which lens to choose, rather than which camera body! Given that all DSLR sensors are quite good (and quite similar, unless you step from a cropped to full-frame), the optics have more impact on the image quality than the camera itself. Choosing lenses is covered in Best DSLR lenses: how to buy camera lenses.
Finally, a word of caution. Don't forget that purchasing a great camera does not automatically make you a good photographer! There will always be some amazing photographers who can make better photographs with some cheap compact cameras than I can do with my Nikon D700. And this is not only about how artistic your photos are, but even about the plain technical image quality! Except natural talent, it takes a lot of hard work and experience to become a good photographer!
Where to find more information
I have presented my view on the existing camera types, and given some general guidelines on how to choose a digital camera for photography enthusiasts. When considering particular models, I highly recommend to study their reviews at dpreview.com and kenrockwell.com. I often use these resources myself.